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Mississippi Department of Education's shenanigans result from lack of oversight

In recent weeks, the Mississippi Department of Education has been hit with allegations of procurement shenanigans and cronyism after both the Legislature's PEER Committee and State Auditor Stacey Pickering issued reports.

The MDE's response seemed straight out of a Monty Python bit.

In the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the opening credits are sabotaged by strange pseudo-Swedish references to moose and then the credits are interrupted by a narrator stating that those responsible for the moose references have been sacked (British-speak for fired). Then the moose references reappear and the narrator interrupts again, stating that those responsible for sacking the credit writers have also been sacked.

The MDE says the employee responsible for supervising the contracts was no longer working at the agency and they'd abandoned the "pool" method of picking vendors from a limited group with similar prices rather than conducting a standard procurement using written bids.

It's a convenient way to shift the blame because the ones who approved the controversial contracts — State Superintendent Carey Wright and the state Board of Education — remain in their positions.

Wright is the nation's highest paid superintendent making $307,000, grossing more than Gov. Phil Bryant ($122,160 per year), Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves ($60,000) and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann ($90,000) combined. Wright's salary isn't new, as she's been in office since 2014 and the salary has been in the stratosphere since 2008.

A former administrator in the Montgomery County (Maryland) School District, Wright gave contracts to former Montgomery County co-workers John Q. Porter and Elton Stokes Jr., who worked for a data contractor called Blue Sky Innovative Solutions.

Porter was later contracted to find a MDE chief information officer and hired himself with a salary of $195,000, later reduced after State Auditor Stacey Pickering wrote a letter in 2016 advising the state board that the salary was in excess of state laws.

Stokes and his wife, Sharon Semper-Stokes later received separate contracts, approved by Porter, for other IT work.

There was also the case of JP Beaudoin, who was a contractor for the MDE, was hired by Wright and later resigned in October 2016. His firm, Research in Action, received another contract for the MDE in May 2017.

Joseph Kyle, the president of Memphis Rainbow PUSH, received a $214,000 contractfor IT related commodities, which was never approved by the state Department of Information Technology Services. Also, the MDE couldn't provide auditors with the contract documentation or provide the whereabouts of the purchased items, which it said it distributed to various school districts.

Under Wright's watch, the state also mismanaged $19 million in federal funds for after-school programs in 2016.

Wright ultimately answers to the state Board of Education, which has approved all of these contracts, some of which were done out of the public eye in executive session. Looking over board minutes, most of these contracts were unanimously approved with little discussion or debate.

Pickering in his audit report urged the board to exercise more oversight with MDE. Until the board decides to be more than a rubber stamp for whatever the superintendent wants, there will likely be more shenanigans in the future.

Steve Wilson covers state and local government for the Mississippi Independent News Service. You can follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.

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